Quentin Tarantino’s eighth film, appropriately titled The Hateful Eight, is the director’s most self-indulgent project yet and he’s not a man known particularly for his modesty to begin with. Presented to select theaters in 70mm projection complete with a roadshow program and a 12 minute Ennio Morricone-scored overture at its start (with an intermission halfway through), this is his attempt to bring the high art prestige of a classy theater play back into modern movie theaters. It’s a noble effort, one that generated plenty of buzz, so it’s a shame that the film at the center of it all is simply not worthy of the spectacle.
Set during a harsh winter in post-Civil War Wyoming, we’re introduced to bounty hunter John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his outlaw prisoner Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as they travel in stagecoach bound for Red Rock. Along the way, they also pick up former Union Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and former Confederate fighter Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), who claims that he’s on his way to Red Rock to be sworn in as the town’s next sheriff. To stave off the impending blizzard, the four shack up at a secluded lodge but when they start to converse with the other four characters who reside there, suspicions about their motivations and identities begin to grow.
Due to its dedication to a single location and focus on solving a central mystery, the film has drawn comparisons to Tarantino’s debut Reservoir Dogs but that film benefited greatly from a tighter structure and comparatively brisk pace. The intentionally slumberous pacing in the first hour of The Hateful Eight is meant to build up excitement for when Ruth and his passengers finally arrive at the lodge but it comes across more as a storyteller spinning his wheels while we wait for the movie to start. While the dialogue between Mannix and Warren is likely the sharpest in the film, it doesn’t come close to matching the poetry and poignancy of passages from films like Inglorious Basterds and Pulp Fiction.
Unlike those movies, The Hateful Eight is severely lacking when it comes to compelling characters. Tarantino clearly went for the quantity over quality method here with eight loathsome characters who hardly possess any distinguishable traits beyond boorishness and sadistic self-interest. It’s possible to write an interesting story about eight “bad guys” sharing a room for the night but it’s an especially bad idea to paint their personalities in broad strokes and then ask us to care about anything that happens to them as individuals.
Most disappointing, however, is the depiction of violence in the film’s second half. This is an area that I’ve noticed Tarantino begin to slip since the conclusion of his last film Django Unchained. There used to be an artfulness and craft to his action sequences that now feels like it’s been superseded by laziness and sensationalism. A primary example is the extended flashback that comprises the film’s fifth chapter, which adds very little context to the main narrative and whose only purpose seems to be to raise the overall body count. Tarantino has always seemed steadfast on topping his previous effort but The Hateful Eight is a sign that it may be time for him to reign things in.